William Henry Burnett, African-American educator and Kaufman County civic leader, son of William and Josephine (Richie) Burnett, was born in South Prong, Ellis County, Texas, on October 17, 1872. Burnett attended public school and received the bulk of his education under the tutelage of Alexander R. Wilson, a Presbyterian missionary minister. Burnett was awarded a scholarship to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he studied teaching. Upon completion of his education, he returned to Texas and devoted his life to education for African American children.
After teaching in several communities, including South Prong, Burnett became the principal of the Terrell public school system’s Old Colored School in 1900. Shortly after settling into the community of Terrell, Burnett married Florence Alberta Clemmons Burnett in 1902. Their only son, William Clemons Burnett, was born in 1906. William and Florence were married for twenty-two years until her death on May 22, 1924. Burnett soon married Lillie Franklin. They did not have any children.
During his tenure as principal in the Terrell public school system, he often met with the parents of his students to discuss their educational future. At this time, many African-American families often removed their children from school in order to help with the seasonal work of picking cotton. Burnett’s high educational standards and encouragement played an important role in the development of his students and also exerted a positive influence on young African Americans well beyond the city limits of Terrell.
Burnett’s accomplishments during his forty-four years of service in the capacity of principal included the organization of the system’s first high school program, the formation of a school band that he directed, and the implementation of teacher workshops and seminars. A noted public speaker, Burnett was heralded as one of the leading educators in Texas. He was active in civic affairs in Terrell, a member of St. James A.M.E. Church, and a Mason.
William Henry Burnett died in Terrell on August 25, 1944. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery (now called Old Oakwood Cemetery). W. H. Burnett Elementary School in Terrell in Kaufman County was named for the dedicated educator in 1979, and a Texas Historical Marker was erected in his honor in 1982.
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Dallas Morning News, July 18, 2008. Historical Marker Files, Texas Historical Commission, Austin. Drew Williams, "William Henry 'WH' Burnett" (http://www.txgenweb5.org/txkaufman/africanamericans/burnettwh.htm), accessed January 23, 2012.
School Principals and Superintendents
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
“Burnett, William Henry,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 29, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
May 8, 2013
Most Recent Revision Date:
May 15, 2013
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: